Every now and then, ESPN.Com comes through with an interesting, edifying, and entertaining article that justifies my 1000 visits per day.

With the release today of Madden 06 (student note: an X-Box 360 and Madden 06 will do just fine as compensation for the countless hours I’ve spent reading your term papers. Thank you.), ESPN.com writer Patrick Hruby described the “uncanny valley” that the game evokes.

Put simply, the theory states that as a nonhuman entity becomes more like us in its appearance and motion, our reactions become increasingly positive and empathetic — until it becomes “almost human,” at which point our feelings give way to revulsion.

Why do we get creeped out? Easy. So long as an entity is sufficiently nonhuman — think C-3P0, or the crude players in earlier Madden games — we tend to notice its human qualities. An effeminate English accent stands out; a blurry touchdown dance delights us. But when that same entity gets close to seeming human, the opposite effect takes place. Every flaw becomes huge, every nonhuman quality impossible to ignore. The old Madden players were charmingly unsophisticated. The newest digital Vick brings to mind one of George Romero’s zombies, only without the blood and bad teeth.

I’m far too tired to think of any, but there must be profound implications on artificial intelligence (like, perhaps, cutting off funding?). Stuck in my head are scenes from That Hideous Strength. Chasing Hruby’s link to Wikipedia’s article on the “uncanny valley” didn’t help me get them out:

David Hanson, a roboticist who developed a realistic robotic copy of his girlfriend’s head, said the idea of the Uncanny Valley was “really pseudoscientific, but people treat it like it is science.”

Sara Kiesler, a human-robot interaction researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, questioned Uncanny Valley’s scientific status, noting that “we have evidence that it’s true, and evidence that it’s not.”

1) A robotic copy of your girlfriend’s head? Charming. And romantic.
2) Notice who’s doubting? That’s right–the AI folk. No wonder. Profound implications, I tell you.

At least I have a new addition to the list of conundrums: How do we close the mind/body gap? Can we leap Lessing’s ditch? Will we transverse the “uncanny valley?”

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • The trickiest thing about true AI is what it would imply for human nature, which is what I guess you were getting at with your reference to the NICE.

    If people can create, and consequently control intelligence, human nature becomes completely mouldable. Thus, there become, in actual fact, no absolutes of human nature.

    However, mere revulsion is no stopping force. I figure that if AI can be done, it will be done. If our affections are merely constructs, then there is no reason to not reconstruct or destruct them.